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Welcome to Marwen Movie Review

Hollow Dolly

I wish Robert Zemeckis's latest film, "Welcome to Marwen," was just Dark Helmet playing with his dolls again - not that we ever ADMITTED to seeing Dark Helmet play with dolls.  Instead, Zemeckis (Flight) and Steve Carell (Vice) team up to deliver a film that is as fractured as the psyche of its protagonist. It's a drama about addiction, trauma, and recovery. No, it's a fantasy action movie, but with fancy dolls and elaborate models! No, it's BOTH!!  But, because it's trying to do too many things, it's not really good at any of them.

Carell plays Mark Hogancamp, who creates highly detailed staged photographs of his fantasy alter-ego Capt. Hogie of the US Army Air Corps and the Women of Marwen -dolls inspired by various people in his life. The film alternates between Mark's awkward interactions with people in the real world, and the heroic - but surprisingly bland -slaughter of seemingly unkillable Nazis in his fantasy world as he creates these photos.

This artwork is Mark's method for dealing with the post-traumatic stress sustained in a life-threatening beating at the hands of five men. Unfortunately, we have no idea how or why he started this artistic endeavor; we just crash land into him already well-established in the practice taking these photos, which is leading to an art exhibition "coming up soon."  The film drips in a few background notes to set some of the stage pieces but gives little more than a light explanation that it's just a thing he does.

Mark's real world is filled with characters who have little to do but ask about his art show, encourage him to face his attackers in court, and gaze at him with mixture of concern, empathy, and sadness.  The people all around him - even those he has made a part of the "Marwen" narrative - have obviously accepted it and go about their business. In one case, it's clear that his hobby shop friend Roberta (Merritt Weaver, "Birdman") is aware of her part, but for the rest, including Carlala (Eliza Gonzalez, "Baby Driver") it's never really explored.  This feels like a missed opportunity, as the supporting characters really have little to do.

Unfortunately, this comfort/complacency does ill-service to the entrance of the new neighbor-across-the-street, Nicol (Leslie Mann, "How to Be Single").  A pseudo-manic pixie dream girl, she's co-opted into his fantasy, at first without her knowledge.  When she does learn of her role - and Mark's not at all disguised preference for her - it's unclear if she's clueless about what's unfolding, or just leading Mark on.  Because we never see how the other Women of Marwen got there, we don't know if Nicol's addition is unique, or just another replay.  Unfortunately, it plays as creepy and stalkerish, masquerading as "sweet, broken guy who just needs love."  The eventual destination of this oddly-founded relationship is both unsurprising and unsatisfying.

In the fantasy world of "Marwen," things are not much better from a characterization point of view.  The Nazis here are, yet again, garden-variety evildoers.  Capt. Hogie plays hero, delivering hammy quips while flanked by irrationally scantily-clad doll women. Mark even trots out the trope of WWII being the one "where we were the good guys."  The metaphorical line between the Nazis and Mark's real-life attackers is plainly drawn, as is that between the Women of Marwen and the various women in Mark's life who've helped him.  But in both cases, these connections are not developed; they just exist. The only one that makes you think and pay attention is the character of Deja (Diane Kruger, "The Infiltrator"), whose role I won't spoil, other than to say it is yet another ham-handed metaphor. The violence here is not particularly compelling nor all that well-staged, although I will admit I chuckled the first few times a Nazi dies and is transfixed into a doll-appropriate rigor mortis.

Much digital ink will be spilled on the tumble that "Marwen's" animation takes into the uncanny valley (comparisons WILL be made to the dead-eyed demons of Zemeckis' earlier work "The Polar Express").  But I think it worked to the film's advantage here: I bought into the visual aesthetic of the dolls, and Zemeckis' approach succeeds in making Marwen's inhabitants suitably fantastical.  Combine that with a decent linkage between the practical models and digital environments and the fantasy world of Marwen LOOKS pretty good. The one notable exception to this praise of visuals is Zemeckis' lazy and disappointing call-back to one of his most famous films.

I was disappointed that this film ended up being such a mess. The concept seemed original and I'll join the chorus of people wishing for the life raft of original content on the "Endless Ocean of Superheroes."  Steve Carell can do great dramatic work. But even a great actor will be bested by poor content.  Robert Zemeckis can make really. great. movies. This just isn't one of them.  It bears repeating: I genuinely wish this movie was just Dark Helmet playing with his dolls.  Again. I would watch that over this.


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